An American Beauty by Shana Abe #ARC #BookReview #GildedAge #KensingtonBooks

1867, Richmond, Virginia: Though she wears the same low-cut purple gown that is the uniform of all the girls who work at Worsham’s gambling parlor, Arabella stands apart. It’s not merely her statuesque beauty and practiced charm. Even at seventeen, Arabella possesses an unyielding grit, and a resolve to escape her background of struggle and poverty.

Collis Huntington, railroad baron and self-made multimillionaire, is drawn to Arabella from their first meeting. Collis is married and thirty years her senior, yet they are well-matched in temperament, and flirtation rapidly escalates into an affair. With Collis’s help, Arabella eventually moves to New York, posing as a genteel, well-to-do Southern widow. Using Collis’s seed money and her own shrewd investing instincts, she begins to amass a fortune.

Their relationship is an open secret, and no one is surprised when Collis marries Arabella after his wife’s death. But “The Four Hundred”—the elite circle that includes the Astors and Vanderbilts—have their rules. Arabella must earn her place in Society—not just through her vast wealth, but with taste, style, and impeccable behavior. There are some who suspect the scandalous truth, and will blackmail her for it. And then there is another threat—an unexpected, impossible romance that will test her ambition, her loyalties, and her heart . . .

An American Beauty (Amazon US) (Amazon UK) (Audible)

I read a lot of history, and I know a lot about the well-known railroad barons like Cornelius Vanderbilt and James J. Hill, but I confess I’d never heard of Colis Huntington nor his wife Arabella. However, I’m a sucker for a rags-to-riches story, especially set during the Gilded Age, so I thought I’d give this book a chance. I’ve yet to read The Second Mrs. Astor, but it has been on my TBR list for some time. After reading An American Beauty, I will definitely go back and read this author’s other works.

The book description is a little misleading as it mentions that Arabella and Colis marry after his wife dies. This is true, but it didn’t happen until the book was about 75% over. There’s much more, so much more that comes before that. Arabella and Colis meet at an illegal saloon where there may have been prostitution as well. It’s never laid out exactly what “Belle” does and doesn’t do with the men that come to the club, which I think was a good choice on the author’s part. Colis is so bewitched with Arabella he finds out where she lives and proposes an affair. Arabella is coached by her mother a little and she knows just what to do. After some weeks of trysting at a local hotel, Huntington announces he has to return to New York and would like Belle to accompany him; she says she will come if her family can come, too.

The family is put up in one house, and Arabella and the saloon keeper, Johnny Worsham, are put up in a 4-story brownstone, acting in public as man and wife. Worsham is being paid dearly for this deceit. He has rooms on one floor and Arabella on another, and appear socially whenever the situation dictates. After two years, Belle discovers she’s pregnant with Colis’ child, and arranges to have Worsham go back to Virginia, much richer than when he came. She then moves out of the neighborhood because of a nosy neighbor who has asked one too many questions over the years.

Arabella also plans for the future by asking Colis for loans to buy property in parts of the city as an investment, intending to pay him back once the lot is developed and profits can be divided. Even though she’s a kept woman, she knows that at any time, she may be tossed aside out of her lover’s sense of duty to his first family. Belle gives birth to the son Colis never had, and now feels in a position to ask for a few more things from Colis: to be seen in public with him, as an “old family friend,” to make further investments in property.

Years pass, and throughout that time, Belle is shunned by polite society, in part because Colis’ wife knows about the affair, and tries to keep Colis close, but it’s a losing battle. At one point the wife demands that Colis and Arabella’s son be sent away, so he’s sent to Texas for a few years to live with Belle’s sister and husband, who are ranchers. Finally, Belle demands the return of her son.

Meanwhile, Belle has met Colis’ adopted daughter and has run-ins with her over the years. Soon she is a teenager with a mother dying of cancer. Finally, the wife meets with Arabella and tells her to take care of Colis. She dies soon after. Within a few months, Colis and Belle are seen around town, once the period of mourning is over, and officially become an item before ultimately marrying and combining their families.

Belle has met a nephew of Colis and feels an irresistible pull towards Edward. All these years with Colis, she held back part of her heart in a cold and calculating way, yet these feelings she has for Edward defy everything she has tried to avoid all these years: true emotional entanglement.

The end of the book kind of waned for me, with years passing and things happening so quickly there was no time to absorb everything. Ultimately, Colis dies, and some years later, when Edward is free of his sour wife, he and Arabella marry and live happily ever after in California.

In the author’s notes, there’s more information, which was helpful since I’d never heard of any of these people, outside of “The 400” of New York society.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley and Kensington Books in exchange for an honest review; all opinions expressed are my own.

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